Swati Adarkar MPA 1989 leads Children’s Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on improving the lives of children in Oregon.
By Mari Megias
November 30, 2018
Swati Adarkar, a 1989 graduate of the two-year MPA program at Harvard Kennedy School, wants every child, regardless of family income, to have the best possible start in life. This is why she helped launch Children’s Institute to advocate for early childhood education, health, and safety.
“If you start to look at where you can make the biggest difference, it’s in early childhood. There’s abundant research on the critical impact of the developmental period for children prenatal through age eight,” she says.
Adarkar rattles off statistics with an ease that demonstrates her passion. She notes that families in the United States have a more difficult time than families in many other countries. “It’s not the same as places like Finland and Sweden, where there’s a real commitment to paid leave and childcare. Here in the U.S., we have a whole host of kids who are coming from behind. Those kids and families need supports, so what we do is work to improve lifelong health and education outcomes by increasing public investment in high-quality early childhood services like preschool.”
As president and CEO of Children’s Institute, Adarkar leans on her Harvard Kennedy School education daily. It was at the Kennedy School where she took courses on poverty and inequality from David Ellwood and Robert Reich, among others. “I received a great grounding in how to think about persistent social problems,” she says.
In 2007, one of those problems was under consideration by the Oregon legislature. The leadership of Children’s Institute’s persuaded the state to nearly double its investment in Oregon Pre-kindergarten (OPK), a state program modeled after the federal Head Start program that helps children ages three to five growing up in poverty to be ready for kindergarten. With this additional state funding, 3,000 more children received services than otherwise would have. “In addition to preschool, OPK and Head Start provide a connection to essential health and other stabilizing services and engages families,” says Adarkar.
This successful work put Children’s Institute on the map in Oregon. With increased public funding, Adarkar says, “we moved into implementation.” In 2010, Children’s Institute launched its Early Works initiative in one urban and one rural community in Oregon. Early Works supports high-quality early learning in elementary school settings, including preschool and family services like birth-to-three playgroups, parenting education, and health and housing resources. “We are interested not just in the why but the how,” says Adarkar. “Through the process of engaging with partners including school districts, Head Start, community-based organizations, and families to implement Early Works, we’ve seen a powerful ripple effect. Early Works demonstrates that high-quality preschool and supports for families can close opportunity gaps and help kids enter kindergarten prepared for success.”
The lessons learned through Early Works drive Children’s Institute’s advocacy work. Adarkar notes, “If you do traditional advocacy, your cycle of work might be to focus on a legislative session, make the case, figure out where you are at, retool, then do it again. But you don’t necessarily know what’s happening on the ground. The policy-practice feedback loop guides our effort and gives us a deeper understanding of what works best for kids and families.”
Children’s Institute continually evaluates its efforts, including through the ongoing longitudinal study at Early Works on the impact of increased investment in early childhood education in Oregon. And with Adarkar at the helm, thousands of children in Oregon already have a better start in life.